Fed’l monitor: juvenile detention staff hesitant to restrain teens
Excessive use of force among correction officers at Rikers Island has been an ongoing concern for years. But at Horizon Juvenile Center, staff often did not physically intervene in violence incidents even when they should have, according to the federal monitor that oversees the facility.
The monitoring team has scrutinized chaotic conditions at the facility ever since 16- and 17-year olds were moved from Rikers to Horizon in 2019 after Raise the Age legislation was implemented. Although the Nunez monitoring team praised the city’s Administration for Children’s Services for working to improve staffing levels at the facility and also noted that the number of assaults has decreased since last summer, the level of violence “still remains troubling as staff appear ill-equipped or reluctant to manage violent and disruptive youth.”
Staff punched, kicked and spat on
Between July and December of last year at Horizon, there were 128 incidents of teen-on-teen assaults and 57 attacks on staff, according to the report. Forty percent of those attacks resulted in injuries. On several occasions, staff were kicked, punched, spat on and had their keys stolen, including during a January incident when three employees were held hostage by juvenile detainees.
The monitor noted that “one of the things that stands out about many of the incidents is that staff often appeared reticent to intervene physically in situations where a risk of physical harm clearly existed.”
Staff reported just one instance where a teen offender was confined to a room for four hours following a serious assault. The monitor urged ACS to expand staff’s “understanding, capability and willingness” to use physical restraint and room confinement.
“Both have a legitimate safety purpose, and … failing to use these tools where appropriate can be as dangerous as overusing them,” the report stated. “A well-executed, well-timed physical restraint that is proportional to the observed threat can actually protect both staff and residents from serious harm.”
Union: Staff afraid of discipline
Anthony Wells, president of District Council 37’s Local 371, and Darek Robinson, the local’s vice president of grievances, said that the reason youth development specialists were hesitant to physically discipline the teens was because they were afraid of being disciplined by the state Justice Center, which investigates claims of abuse and neglect at Horizon.
“We had a really rough start with the Justice Center. Years ago, a staffer restrained a kid and the Justice Center arrested him,” Robinson said during a phone interview.
The staffer was acquitted, but the arrest alarmed juvenile-detention employees.
Wells said the union is planning to meet with Justice Center officials to address their concerns “so we can have a true investigation without fear.”
Another reason why youth development specialists have had trouble maintaining order in the city’s juvenile detention centers was because the safe-crisis management techniques implemented by ACS were inadequate, a complaint the union officials have made for years.
Bigger, stronger teens
“The safe-crisis management doesn’t teach what to do in a gang assault situation. We have big, strong kids who are 200 pounds and 6’5″,” Robinson noted.
Many of the problems stem from the fact that the teens at the facility are older than the population held there prior to the Raise the Age law’s implementation. The union leaders pointed to a lack of programming that engages the teens, noting that there should be vocational training for the older detainees.
“Even the curfew had to be changed—you can’t tell a 17-year-old to go to bed at 8. We have to change our philosophy,” Wells said.
The monitor’s report also highlighted severe understaffing at the facility. Between July and December, on average there were 218 youth development specialists employed at Horizon, far below the 337 ACS estimated it needed to be fully staffed.
Exacerbating the issue was the fact that during that same period, 37 percent of YDS were on workers’ compensation or paid sick leave. Between staff being injured on the job or getting sick with coronavirus, an average of only 138 YDS were available to work. Getting staffing levels up is also important because the city must restore 8-hour shifts for the YDS, rather than the 12-hour shifts they worked throughout the pandemic.
More staff needed to stop attacks
The report noted that the high level of violence “may be directly linked to the continued staffing shortages among YDS.”
The monitoring team praised steps taken by ACS to address the staffing woes, including a $2,500 retention bonus for youth development specialists who came to work at least 90 percent of the time between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31.
But the team criticized the lack of sanctions for detainees who committed serious offenses, which has been a major concern for the union, particularly when teens attack staff. It also noted several incidents where teens’ disciplinary hearing records indicated that they did not receive any sanctions.
“We are in favor of Raise the Age, but by that same token, people have to be held accountable for their actions,” Wells said.
He added that the union was meeting with the city to address these issues, and that the current mayoral administration “is moving in the right direction.”
ACS stated that it has taken several steps to improve safety at Horizon, including pairing up with the National Partnership for Juvenile Justice for a training initiative.
“The safety and security of the youth and staff in detention have remained a top priority for ACS,” a spokesperson said. “In the most recent report from the Nunez monitors, they note that despite the many challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, ACS has made ‘progress in all areas.’ ACS is grateful to our detention staff for their tremendous efforts to keep youth safe and provide them with the tools and skills to thrive when they return to the community.”